Young adults who regularly consume highly caffeinated energy drinks could be at risk of later cocaine use, according to a study by the University of Maryland School of Public Health.
The study, published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, looked at young adults aged between 21 and 25, across a five-year period.
The study’s leader, Dr Amelia Arria and colleagues with the Center on Young Adult Health and Development (CYAHD) found evidence that individuals who regularly consumed highly caffeinated energy drinks, and sustained that consumption over time, were significantly more likely to use cocaine, nonmedically use prescription stimulants (NPS), and be at risk for alcohol use disorder (AUD) at age 25.
Participants were recruited for the study while enrolled as college students, and were surveyed at regular intervals to track changes in various health and risk-taking behaviors, including energy drink consumption and drug use.
“The results suggest that energy drink users might be at heightened risk for other substance use, particularly stimulants,” said Dr Arria, associate professor of behavioral and community health and CYAHD director. “Because of the longitudinal design of this study, and the fact that we were able to take into account other factors that would be related to risk for substance use, this study provides evidence of a specific contribution of energy drink consumption to subsequent substance use.”
Previous research by CYAHD researchers has documented the relationship between energy drink (ED) consumption and high-risk drinking behaviors, as well as the likelihood of other accompanying drug use, but this study is the first to examine the unique effect of different trajectories of ED consumption on likelihood of later substance use.
Notably, more than half (51.4 per cent) of the 1099 study participants fell into the group with a “persistent trajectory,” meaning that they sustained their energy drink consumption over time.
Members of this group were significantly more likely to be using stimulant drugs such as cocaine and prescription stimulants non-medically and be at risk for alcohol use disorder at age 25. The research singles out ED consumption as the contributory factor because they controlled for the effects of demographics, sensation-seeking behaviors, other caffeine consumption, and prior substance use at age 21.
Those in the “intermediate trajectory” group (17.4 per cent) were also at increased risk for using cocaine and NPS relative to those in the “non-use trajectory” who never consumed energy drinks (20.6 per cent). Members of the “desisting trajectory” group (those whose consumption declined steadily over time) and the non-use group were not at higher risk for any substance use measures that were tested.
While the biological mechanism that might explain how someone who persistently consumes energy drinks might go on to use other stimulant drugs remains unclear, the research indicates a cause for concern that should be further investigated.